One of the first bestsellers of the industrial age, The Last Days of Pompeii (Edward Bulwer Lytton, 1834) had avid readers for more than a century, from the early years of mass literacy to the advent of tv. I have been paging through a Heritage Press edition (1957).
Here’s a sample of what we’re missing:
‘I feel humbled when I look at his limbs,’ replied, at the left of Sosia, a slighter and younger figure, with his arms folded on his breast.
The slave looked first at one, and then at the other. ‘Virtus in medio! — virtue is ever in the middle!’ muttered he to himself; ‘a goodly neighbourhood for thee, Sosia– a gladiator on each side!’
‘That is well said, Lydon,’ returned the huge gladiator; ‘I feel the same.’
Thanks to the internet, you can find an outlandish price for an old book faster than your grandma can find “Antiques Roadshow” on the cable tv guide. Absurdly high prices mislead buyers into thinking those asking prices are actual values, when in fact, no one ever paid that price for that book, despite the seller’s stubborn optimism. Peculiarly low prices are found for copies in poor condition sold by unprofessional sellers who don’t describe them accurately. (Amazon! More on that later.) These unfortunately drag down the value of good copies sold by reputable dealers.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced an extravagant over-abundance of books. Only a minority of these have both enduring literary value and bindings that remain attractive and usable today.
Gulliver’s Travels is in print for its fourth century (first published 1726). That kind of record, more than for instance a recent film (Jack Black notwithstanding), is a true indicator of value. We have an 1853 16mo (sextodecimo, about 4×6 inches), which sadly is quite wrecked and ruined– cloth torn and some missing, signatures separating, title page torn and scribbled on, last page half missing. Is it worth a thousand dollars because it’s 158 years old? No. Even if it was very good, it might only fetch $50; a nicer 1850 London edition was recently unsold on ebay for $35. I won’t be the one to throw it in the trash, but I also won’t include it in my online listings. The condition is too poor. The market is cluttered with junk. This one will sit on a shelf here until someone is charmed enough to pay a small price for it.
This kind of copy can serve to hold a place until you find a better one someday.
Here to share my three decades of bookselling experience. Mysteries of the old book business will be revealed. What’s an old book worth? How do you buy a quality used book online? What’s up with Amazon?
All of us who value books– readers, buyers, sellers, collectors, scholars– have a common cause. I’ve always thought of the books that exist as one global library, a cultural trove. Ownership is temporary. The books travel and have lives beyond any particular person or place. All of us are caretakers in a way, custodians, guardians. If there are fewer printed books in the future, preservation of the good ones here already is even more important. As a bookseller, I get to share in that with people all over the world.
Last week, I sent Music and Theater in France 1600-1680 to a customer in Japan. I sold an 1889 edition of Herndon’s biography of Lincoln to an Indian gentleman in California, who told me it was a gift for a friend in India opening an institute for the study of democracy. Two continents, two centuries, two cultures.
Next time you sit back and open a book, savor the privilege, the peace, and the power to read.